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16 July 2020

Mindful-Eating Mastery: Learning From My Mistakes – Part 1

by James Anthony 0

Late last year, after having purposefully over-consumed calories for 7 months and gaining 5-6kgs, I began sorting out my diet. I did this with the intention of getting very lean for the summer — “jacked” as some might say.  In doing so, I didn’t track calories on an app, nor did I make any mental calculations,…

Late last year, after having purposefully over-consumed calories for 7 months and gaining 5-6kgs, I began sorting out my diet. I did this with the intention of getting very lean for the summer — “jacked” as some might say.  In doing so, I didn’t track calories on an app, nor did I make any mental calculations, yet, I managed to lose 3-4kgs in 5 weeks. Long story short, I just ate significantly less calories and trained sufficiently to maintain muscle mass. The last time I tracked was at the beginning of the bulking phase for 2-3 weeks, so that I could recognise what a 200-300kcal surplus looked like after having altered my food choices. Before that, there had been an 18-month hiatus.

Beyond the 2-week tracking stint, the main reason I knew that I was piling in enough calories, was because my scale weight was increasing. And following that, during my fat-loss phase, ensuring my weight trended in the opposite direction was my primary metric. Really, my morning weigh-in was the only metric I needed! When cutting, I ate mostly the same foods each day, just less of those foods, and if the scale didn’t budge after 3-5 days, I’d look to my diet, reduce the least nutritious item, and keep it that way. The inverse operation occurred when bulking. 

On days where I couldn’t eat my normal diet, I would opt for the best low calorie, high protein or nutrient-dense option I could find. This template served me well, and it was one which did I had to make use of regularly.

Life happens, right?

6 months after that experience, I’ve done the mental arithmetic, and I can estimate that I was eating ~1800 calories per day whilst cutting. This may seem objectively low given my maintenance would be around the ~2950 mark, but it’s really not. Not for 5 weeks, at least, especially after having bulked for so long and food had lost a lot of its appeal. Not even McDonald’s pancakes with syrup could stimulate a scintilla of appetite.

Another reason for my lack of hunger throughout the dieting phase is because I know how to maximise the satiating properties of my diet through high protein, high volume, high fibre and having sufficient nutrient density (which minimises my body “craving” certain things that it is lacking). Other more indirect, but still significant appetite modulators, were also in check, such as eating at consistent times and getting quality sleep.

My transition from high to lower body fat percentage without tracking was natural to me yet baffled enough people around me to make me wonder why that was the case. It made me acknowledge that what I had completed was against the grain, at least in my circles, and that there’re valuable lessons in how I’ve transitioned from someone who, quite honestly, ate horribly in my teen years, to someone who eats healthy and can manipulate weight with minimal metrics.

The questions that popped up in my head were as follows…

Why do people feel this approach is unattainable for them?

Why do people get stuck on the tracking treadmill, going back and forth between using and not using?

What are the qualities needed to advance past tracking, towards mindful eating, and to a point in which this can lead to weight loss?

I thought back to the issues I had with tracking and I believe I can answer these questions quite well. But, before I go any further, a few things must be appreciated in order to gain a critical perspective on what I have to say.

  1. I’m personally never too far away from being very lean, and at no point in my history have I been classified as overweight.
  2. I have little getting in my way. I shop and cook for myself and I’m surrounded by health and physique focused people. 
  3. I’m always coming off the back of a bulk. By which I mean, I do actively drive my weight up, rather than just neglecting healthy habits and finding weight has accrued after a weight-loss phase, as many tend to do.

None of these points take away from the article’s conclusions, but what they do is shift is the endpoints at which I — in comparison to you — can reach. I have some genetic factors that make it easier for me to trend towards an “optimal” physique and some that take me further away. You will be different, and you may have more or less of those factors that help — but that is beside the point anyway. I just wanted to give you some context in relation to where I am coming from, but the main purpose of today’s article to help you improve on where you are currently, wherever that may be.

Another thing, and as you’ll later read, one of the critical barriers to becoming a mindful eater is to relinquish weight stigma and instead opt for a health-centric approach. Therefore, playing the poor/good genetics card is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

With that said, you’ll not be getting the “secrets to getting lean” with what follows. Instead, you’ll get lessons on how to better control your diet, health and potentially weight — in that order.

Also, to be frank, my journey from malnutrition to mindful eating was in no way smooth. I downright faceplanted a couple of times and overall it was about a 2-3-year ordeal. I truly believe that everything I have come to learn, and all experiences that brought me to this point, can be learned within a much MUCH shorter time frame, if, and only if, you’re willing to learn from my mistakes.

As the saying goes, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You will never live long enough to make them all yourself.”

The actual true other of the quote is contentious — it has been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, Groucho Marx, both Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr and Snr — so I can’t actually credit the true author, but hopefully, you understand the sentiment I am trying to convey.

My first real encounter with MyFitnessPal

My first noteworthy tracking experience came, again, after a long bulk. This was 3 years ago after having gone from 72-82kgs in a 12-month timeframe. Much of this weight gain was fat gain due to the dirty bulking protocols that were common for first-timers. In retrospect, it was a rationalisation to eat like an idiot, but the fun and games stopped when I became constantly lethargic, anxious, self-conscious and had consistent blood pressure readings of 150/90. Cashing in late, I began the day after eating 6 free donuts whilst watching bodybuilding contest athletes avoid the freebies, even after finishing their one and only shows. Plus, I had never properly dieted before, nor had a tracked effectively, yet I was asking clients to do just that (shame on me). 

These factors converged and kicked off my first real dieting/tracking experience. 

Nurture won on this occasion I guess…

Another reason for my desire to shred was because bodybuilding competition had become intriguing to me, I mean how could it not? I was surrounded by it constantly at work. I thought, why not do a trial run? It looked cool and it’s what all the other coaches were doing or have done. 

So, over the space of 16 weeks I hustled back down to 71kgs, only this time, I had a helluva lot more visible muscle than the year before. I got through the first weeks of tracking, which are always a hard adjustment — especially if you’re someone who eats a lot of take-away, snacks and constantly raid your parent’s pantry and fridge for whatever you can find! I ate at 2400 for the first half and then I dropped it down to 2100 for the second half. Weekends were back at around 2400-2500 for the second half, which is known as a re-feed.

At 71kgs, the “newby” gains were evident. Gee I liked the way I looked, and boy did I want to keep it that way! But, as often is the case at such low body fat percentages (relative to your starting point), my mental faculties were not completely intact and my appetite was screaming to be relieved. It was the felt restriction that brought this on as well as the length of time without a break.

One day, late in the diet, I remember being so drained on energy, that on my way to do squats, I couldn’t psyche myself up in the car to bring myself to the idea of squatting. Instead, I conceded and said to myself, “ just do leg press” 3x times over, “just get in there, do leg press, get a pump and leave”. I walked through the door, tentatively, towards the leg press, tentatively, got it in my line of sight, and then suddenly, I started tearing up and walked out. 

This was in the 16thweek of dieting and something had gone wrong. I could have just been having a singular hard day, but to be honest, it had been building from around week 11. I had been continuously neglecting my hunger signals, eating within 5% of my calorie targets per day, avoiding eating out and just being all-round rigid in my approach for too long and without any plan — other than to simplistically continue dieting, or to at least stay as lean. 

I had fallen into the exact same trap that those bodybuilders did when they didn’t accept the god-damn doughnut, albeit, a much less extreme version — but enough to engrain neural circuitry that had led me into an unhealthy state of being.

Towards A Better Way

Now I want to talk a little bit about tracking in general and relate that to the experience I went through, as well as the experiences I’ve observed of many others. However, what I will mostly focus on is where I went wrong and what I should have done differently.

I’ll start by saying this: tracking calories and macronutrients thoroughly is truly an unrivalled, heuristically-sound approach to learning basic nutrition and it is perfectly safe when used correctly. 

For those of you who are unaware; it consists of weighing all your food raw or scanning the barcodes, plugging the nutrient data into an app and staying within certain caloric and macronutrient limits.

It seems odd, but after doing it for a while, you actually struggle to live without it. The mind is a funny thing…

But seriously, though, when it comes to understanding caloric values, nothing sends more shockwaves down your spine than tracking how many calories are in a properly sized tablespoon of peanut butter. It is truly a steep learning curve for many people, providing the “Red Pill” of the nutritional universe — revealing cruel and unpleasant truths that are ultimately worthwhile if you wish to seek knowledge and shed the stable comfort of misinformation.

Of course, this illusion can be broken through education alone, but knowing, for example, that X food has a certain number of calories or protein is one thing, practically applying it to your overall dieting goals is another. It’s the art of “Tetris-ing” each food to create a day’s worth of eating in line with your plan. You simply learn more effectively through experience, and nothing is more hands-on and quantifiable than tracking everything you eat (as well as guestimating everything you don’t weigh). 

Your portions begin to step in-line with your goals, and you learn the macronutrient content of multiple foods, and subsequently what you’re missing. A lot of people simply don’t understand that costs of consistently eating energy-dense, low satiety foods relative to their target calorie range and overall nutrient needs.

Not only that, but it can also show how severely misaligned a person’s hunger and fullness signals are with their goals of maintaining or losing weight. You can believe that you’re full at an appropriate time when really, you’ve overshot your pre-determined caloric boundary by some way. It shuts down this subjective analysis and brings it into the objective space of awareness — a useful tool for someone with dysregulated signalling, which is common in the overweight and obese populations.

When you couple tracking with quality education and planning from a nutritional advisor, tracking can provide a strong foundation from which to build a fruitful weight loss (or gain) experience. But this highly quantitative approach isn’t without its dangers, nor will it be the first step in everyone’s journey to nutritional intelligence, or any step at all in many cases. Rather, it’s a tool that must be used at the right time, with the right person, for a reasonable length of time and in order to further your nutritional IQ or lose fat in cases where fat is getting in the way of health. It’s this context that I hope to explain so that you don’t make the same mistakes I did, and so that you can fast track your way to mindful eating. 

Tracking Is A Tool

If someone is already close to their target weight, has a decent structuring of meals, eats plenty of highly nutritious foods and already limits “junk” foods, tracking becomes a pretty ineffective resource. This hypothetical person could still learn a thing or two from tracking, but it may not necessarily reveal itself in their physique. Strategic bouts of tracking, even for a lean individual can be very useful though — for example, if someone has an upcoming wedding or holiday.

Conversely, if someone’s current knowledge is at a beginner level, limited to mythical and unrealistic expectations of food, ignorance of calorie balance is apparent and subsequently, their eating is foolhardy, tracking becomes very logical. But this doesn’t automatically make it perfect for that person, at least not straight away. Simpler methods could be applied such as making small but profound adjustments to someone’s caloric intake. This is also known as targeting the “low hanging fruit.” An example could be changing sugary sodas to diet sodas and/or calorie-dense snack to a piece of fruit. If things don’t shape up after that, it would potentially be appropriate for tracking to follow.

When coming from a background of complete nutritional oblivion, downloading MyFitnessPal, tracking thoroughly, and seeing results can give anyone a profound sense of control, especially if their eating habits were horrid beforehand. Add that with common misconceptions about sharp drops/jumps in scale weight and how much of that is fat (often VERY little), as well as a rigid dieting approach and I can see why people land themselves in hot water. Never mind if you were to add predisposing factors for an eating disorder to really mix things up.

Before I go on, it’s important to briefly note the difference between rigid and flexible dieting. To be clear, though, flexibility and rigidity exist on a continuum and are not entirely distinct from one another, but the following characteristics lend themselves to one particular side of that spectrum…

Rigid restraint – Elimination of foods, minimal to no social eating and tight calorie targets  

Flexible dietary restraint– Flexibility in food choice (to a greater extent), accounts for social eating, ranges for calorie targets which could be daily or weekly, and the key thing is that it is adaptable with normal life.

Both require some boundaries, of course, but neither can entirely forgo the effort of hard dieting.

To return to the problem of control after having dieted in a rigid or flexible fashion, this is something I find it easier to evaluate (conceptually) at the level of the brain…

In the beginning, there’s the part of the brain that’s involved with poor eating habits and poor self-esteem. Then, you start tracking to counter these issues. After having tracked for a while you see the weight go down and you feel rewarded. This reward has been attributed to tracking and not the underlying principles involved. The cardinal rule of behaviour change states that what is rewarded is repeated. Another general rule that governs neuronal behaviour, and thus governs how we learn and act is that what is repeated gets further ingrained and becomes more likely to occur over time. 

When you diet down people say, “you look great,” and that makes your brain go “wow, this tracking thing really pays off, I should do more of this.” And so, of course, you do. Then, over time, these neural pathways becomes hardened, automatic and normal. The positive-feedback loop associated with tracking can be tough to break.

But after a while, you’re not feeling great. Your tired, stressed, hungry and maybe your social life has taken a hit (given the rigid path) — and because you’ve been masking the pain with other forms of reward, you are likely in a slightly worse spot than you can even realise at the time.

In this case, you’re left with two options: 

  1. Your old circuitry, which is associated with little admiration from others, plenty of food reward, though fleeting, mainly low-self-esteem, more weight and just generally poor eating habits — this is your pre-tracking circuitry

    Or…

  2. Your recently developed brain regions, which are associated with you feeling physically subpar, but, it has been rewarded with social praise and admiration time and time again and you certainly agree that you look half-decent — this is your ‘during tracking circuitry‘.

Doubling down on strategy number 2 is understandable. The major issues surface, however, when the approach is rigid, yet, progress could still be occurring via flexible methods.

In reality, no matter who you are, and how you’ve gone about it, once the results are in, these results can be easily misattributed to tracking and not the underlying process, meaning the need to ever re-adjust your approach to eating becomes nonsensical. Why change a winning recipe when it’s helping me? I have control, why take it away? 

But, given the intended purpose of tracking is mostly aiding in clinically needed weight loss and gaining a higher nutritional IQ, the benefits tend to follow an inverted-U. You tend to learn a lot and the benefits are compounded initially, you think “this is the panacea,” but eventually, the benefits slow, stagnate, and then if pushed too hard, begin heading in the opposite direction.

We could consider it like this:

Imagine you’re on a train, starting your journey, you’ve passed each required station and you’ve gotten to where you needed to go. This is the point in which you’ve learnt a lot about calories, macronutrients and how to better control your intake. It’s the point at which you’ve also lost the intended weight.

Or…

You’ve been on the train for a while, you’re halfway there but you need to stretch your legs and get back to normal ground for some time. This is the point in which the necessary knowledge has been gained, yet you’re not quite at your goal weight. It may also be the point in which you realise there’s a better way to get to your destination, which if you hadn’t stepped off the train, you’d never know. 

In both cases, it’s time to get off the train. Either way, staying on the train, whatever example you pick, will take you further from your goal. This is what we need to learn to recognise with tracking when it’s time to get off the train.

In the image above, the red zones on either side impact everyone differently. On the left is poor eating behaviours prior to tracking and you could leave this landscape by walking or by the much more efficient train (i.e. tracking).

On the right-hand red side, the danger really depends on whether the approach to tracking is incongruent, meaning that it’s not actually supporting adherence to nutritional principles, fostering education or it’s the approach. If so, the negative outcomes will be magnified. Tracking is “costly” in and of itself if we compound that with other negatives, like tracking a diet that is inappropriate for our goals, things can get ugly — and quick.

Even if that doesn’t occur, excessive time spent tracking can have people head towards the red zone. Do anything for long enough and it becomes counterproductive. 

I consistently see people become reliant on tracking, even when approaches to dieting are more flexible, such as when bulking or maintaining. Obviously, this is of much less concern, but it is still of concern, nonetheless. It tells me that even though flexibility has been implemented, people still struggle to differentiate between what’s getting them the actual results. Remember: tracking is a tool, and if all you’ve got is a hammer… You’re going to see a lot of nails.

Advanced athletes or those aiming for something beyond the average, such as a title, get the narrowest of exceptions — granted they understand the trades off (something of which can only be known by not tracking at some point). Maybe they’ll like “normality” more, given the chance. Maybe they can succeed just as well without precise data. Only one way to find out. 

I’m not concerned about athletes though; I’m concerned about everyday people seeking weight loss or maintenance — and the process is still that same with or without the app. Just because it’s the gold standard tool for weight loss and/or calorie management, doesn’t make it useful all the time, nor should life be lived through an app.

With all that said, the take home point should be that the tool of tracking is not the issue, people’s misuse is, whether coached or self-administered.

Now that we’ve reached this leg of my journey, I want to finish by listing a few ways in which you can identifying the right points in time to hop on and off the tracking-train so that you can make the ride more safe and enjoyable, both now and in the long term.

The Tracking-As-A-Tool Checklist:

  1. Learn (or teach, if dealing with clients) the basics of nutrition first. These would include functions of macronutrients, calorie balance and a little about meal timing for adherence. Going in with misconceptions increases the risk of negative outcomes through dichotomous thinking.
  • Use ranges for tracking and not strict targets. This could be a range such as 300 calories per day or even a weekly calorie target, which allows for some daily variance. Tying into this, you need to understand the slow and steady nature of weight loss and weight gain. Going over by 500kcal will translate to little fat gain unless it’s done over long periods of time. I really believe that understanding the calorie to fat mathematics is the key to negating black-and-white thinking.
  • Schedule time off tracking and learn how to lose or maintain weight without it in order to mitigate dependence — and plan this from the outset. I often challenge my clients with this every 1-2 months, that’s if they are tracking at all. I could just be for 1 or 2 weeks, it doesn’t need to be lengthy, but it still needs to be done! 
  • Vary your foods every few weeks, especially with the aim of making your diet more micronutrient dense. After all, one goal of tracking is to learn the caloric content of many different foods — just knowing the macros of chicken breast and Halo-Top ice-cream is not much of nutritional education. The change doesn’t have to be drastic, in fact, I recommend that it isn’t, just slowly incorporate new foods/meals that you like to eat and plan to eat sometime in the future. 
  • Don’t continuously diet for too long. Add in maintenance and maybe even surplus phases into a long-term dieting intervention. If you’re feeling the pinch, and you’re not short on time, then have a break. This break would be a great time to practice without tracking or even the second half of however long you break for. Remember: ditch the rigid rules, think expansively and realise that everything is connected. One phase should flow into and supplement another.
  • If you’re going to track for a decent stretch of time with the aim of getting lean, do this in conjunction with an experienced and knowledgeable coach that has a flexible dieting and health-centric approach.

That brings us to the close of this portion of my journey to mindful eating. Tune in next week and we will pick up where we left off — there is plenty of mistakes, and the lessons learned, to cover still. 

Thanks for reading and I’ll hopefully see you all then!

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